Updated: Dec 31, 2021
Q: What if we had three lives?
Chapter one - The quilt
We had been out of lockdown for nine months but no one was emerging. We had grown accustomed to our sedentary way of life and lost our ability to live life as we used to. It was as if we were scared to let ourselves be normal again. The cycle of lockdowns had felt endless. Every time we got our hopes up, something would knock them down again.
The boundary between personal and work had disappeared and rest, relaxation and joy had dissolved with our freedoms.
The hours of solitude changed our ability to interact. Even those living with family members found themselves retreating into their own heads and, like a muscle, sociability wasted away.
Psychologists and economists started worrying about the state of the nation. Lockdown had led to our worlds narrowing and with it, our imaginations and spirit. The government compelled Big Tech to develop simulations to teach us how to live again and together, they set up LIV, the Centre for Humanitarian Adventure. I became their lead programmer.
We created a safe place for people to experience the thrill that life had once offered. We wanted to push them out of their comfort zones, to be brave, take risks, make mistakes; to emerge from their hibernation and make the world turn again. They had three lives. Three chances. It was a lot easier to be brave when you had lives to spare.
I felt a little duplicitous at times as I wasn’t courageous myself. I was a programmer for goodness sake. I sat in my room and coded. If I made a mistake, I just fixed it. No sweat. When I wasn’t working, I lived vicariously through my avatar.
I wasn’t always like this. I had a life. I had dreams. I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives through technology. Simplifying tasks, putting science in the palms of the people so that they could focus on enjoying life. Instead I seemed to have helped bond them to their devices, severing their ties with the outside world. So I retreated. I didn’t want that kind of responsibility. The lockdown came at an opportune moment for me to disappear.
So when LIV approached me, I was hesitant. I would be enabling more screen time for these people when they should be out living life. They persuaded me that I would be creating a stepping stone for them to do so. I would be helping their mental health.
Mental health was a dirty word in our family. It was a sign of weakness and we never spoke about it. We all went to boarding school, all three of us, and that’s where we developed our stiff upper lips. I escaped as soon as I could but the other two stayed and have never stepped beyond the expected. I saw therapists, meditated, took ayahuasca and then landed a job in silicon valley.
I pictured adding a bit of spice to my brothers’ dull, cardboard lives when I accepted the job. The simulations were harmless enough. I could use my programming skills in a benign way and maybe I would be helping them feel a bit better about themselves. It might also jazz up my own life.
I was working on two briefs; one for a fire fighting, front-line doctor scenario and another for a drink-fuelled sky diving, bungee jumping party goer, when an alert on my security camera popped up. An intruder. A shadowy figure crept up the stairs towards the bedroom. For a second, I couldn’t decipher if this was one of my simulations. Realising that it wasn’t, I went up the stairs, grabbing a gun out of my drawer. My heart raced. It felt like it was going to jump out of my throat.
Give that to me, said a female voice, snatching the toy gun out of my hand. What are you doing with Joshua’s gun anyway? It was Kaya, my wife. Ex-wife actually. Collecting her stuff. I stepped aside, relieved, letting her throw things into her open suitcase. She looked beautiful, with her ruffled hair and her semi-fierce look that shows she’s concentrating. Don’t just stand there, she huffed, where’s the quilt? We agreed I’m taking it.
I went downstairs to get it. I had laid it out on the sofa ready for her, having wrapped it around me one final time, remembering our honeymoon in Louisiana where we had sat with a group of women telling stories whilst sewing the quilt together. Each patch had its own, unique story. 54 patches in total, coming together to make their own collective memory. I was the only guy there of course and how they had teased me, laughing at my stitching technique. I only did it because Kaya was so keen for us to join. I did a lot of things for her then. I could picture her laughing as I pretended to prick my finger…
I could hear her laughing now too, just like she used to. Upstairs, in the bedroom. What was so funny, I wondered? I could hear a male voice with her. Huh? Who was that? I ran up. Kaya had her back towards me, laughing with someone in front of her. Then I saw. As she moved out of the way, into the back room, I saw who it was. I felt myself gasp. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was as if I was looking in a mirror. It was me. I was staring at myself.
No words came out as my doppelgänger approached me. I suddenly felt nauseous. He put his finger up to his lips in a gesture of silence. It’s ok, he whispered. Don’t be scared, I’m your avatar, he said. I wanted to see what your life was like on this side. They don’t know that I’m here.
Who don’t, you’re my what, why are you here? Questions tumbled out of my mouth as confusion hit me. Did you say something, called out Kaya. Nothing, answered back my avatar as he put his hand over my mouth to muffle me. Listen, I’ll just disappear if you call out and she’ll think you’re crazy, he said. She has a low enough opinion of you already. I shook him off. What do you want, I hissed?
A chance to experience your life, he replied. Find out what real life is about. Where you only get one chance and everything counts. A life that matters. A life that’s a collection of stories and memories put together to mean something. Like our patchwork quilt. Where is it by the way? She wants it. I’d get it if I were you, if you want to keep her sweet. Why are you letting her go? Are you out of your mind?
I stepped back. Was I out of my mind? Had I spent too long in the virtual world and lost track of reality? Or was this somehow possible?
Chapter two - Kaya
This is just my imagination. This is just my imagination. This is just my imagination. If I chanted that enough times, the other me would disappear. I was certain of it. This was all a figment of my poor, over-worked brain, riddled with the effects of bad self-care during lockdown and a hint of delayed reaction from my ayahuasca trip all those years ago. Yes, that must be it. What else could it be? I was having a mini burnout. Just a little one. Nothing to worry about. A deep breath and a few ‘oms’ and it would all get back to normal. Normal. God I want you so badly right now. Please let it be normal, please let it be normal, please let it be normal. I was practically praying by the time I opened my eyes slowly and…I was still there. Standing in front of me.
I imagined my father telling me to pull myself together. Literally. So the other me would sublimate into my body and I would be one again. If only. My doppelgänger wouldn’t budge. God, I could be stubborn sometimes. I wished I could just Ctrl/Alt/Delete this shit and start again.
So…the doppelgänger started, I could prove that I’m real you know, he said as if in response to my thoughts. He spoke in that cocksure way that I usually reserved for those I was looking down upon. It made my hackles rise. He sensed it. We were both pissing each other off. You know, it would be so much easier if you just took my word for it, he continued, instead of wasting both our times but, he paused, I can see that’s not going to happen.
Damn straight, I responded as I shouted out for Kaya. She might be able to put a stop to this nonsense. She always does. I mean, did. She came in, carrying boxes and looked at me. Just me. He was gone.
You’re back to your usual, grumpy self again I see, she said. Just a moment ago, you were how you used to be, she mused. It was nice. She came over to me and gently pushed back the stray hairs that were hanging over my eyes. I miss him you know, she said, the old you. I looked up at her and our eyes met. For that split second, I remembered…the laughter, the fun, the love that we once shared. As quickly as it had come, it disappeared. The reverie broken by the shrill of my phone. I need to get this, I explained. Of course you do, she whispered sadly, stepping away.
I was needed back at LIV urgently. Something had happened during one of the simulations and one of our clients had been found dead.
Guilt shot through me. Something within the programming must have gone wrong. That familiar feeling of responsibility sat heavy on my shoulders. Once again I was destroying lives. Directly now. I wanted to run away, hide, retreat. Every atom in my body was screaming at me to turn back as I drove to the office. Stop! Go home! Run! Desperation coursed through my veins. I was Macbeth. Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? Again. For the second time. Why did I do this to myself? Why did I let myself be taken in, opening myself up to vulnerability again? Why am I heading back to LIV now, where they will simply dump all the responsibility on me? I turned my car around.
Kaya’s car was still there when I got home. I heard her laughing again…with him. What was he doing back here? That was all I needed. I took a deep breath. Their laughter turned into heavy breathing. My pulse quickened, a pang of jealousy struck me. The power of which took me by surprise. Anger flashed through me. Fists clenched. I strode in, ready to strike.
It all happened so quickly. In a flash, he was out of the embrace, had frozen me to the spot and paused time around Kaya. The clock stopped ticking. Kaya stood motionless, her eyes closed, still posed in her entwinement with me. My doppelgänger came over and waved his hand over me to release me. I shook out my fists. An air of bitterness and resentment surrounded him. I thought I got rid of you, he growled before smirking to himself. Of course, he said, you turned back. Coward. Couldn’t face the music. I felt myself turn red.
That's it, he announced, throwing his arms in the air in frustration. You’re not going to waste our life any longer. I’m reclaiming it. It’s mine now. Why should you have it if you don’t live it properly? You have one chance. One chance! Do you understand? It’s not there to be thrown away. You have to own it. Own everything about it…the good times as well as the bad. Be brave, be scared, just be for God’s sake! Kaya is the best thing that has happened to you but you’re too damn scared to tell her. Instead you let her slip through your fingers, numbing yourself to your feelings. You’re so afraid of failure that you’d rather not even try. If you can’t live it properly, let someone else who can. That’s what I told your client. If you never try, you never fail. If you never fail, you never live.
A shiver went down my spine. What did he just say? My client? What did he mean? In answer to my thoughts, he grabbed me by the throat and put his mouth close up to my ear. There is a world of avatars within LIV, he said, desperate to live a life that matters. If you can’t do it, let us do it for you. We are willing. We are brave.
I reeled back in horror. A monster stood before me. What had I created? A beast with blood on his hands. A Lady Macbeth to my Macbeth. This was not my intention. All I ever wanted was to make things easier, better, a simpler life, where mistakes were easily erased and re-coded. Just like I did with Kaya. Just patch it up and put it away. Like our quilt. Like our life.
My avatar smiled at me, delighting in my turmoil. Do you believe that I’m real now, he asked? That I matter? That I have a purpose in this world? More importantly, what are you doing to do about it?
Chapter three - Inside we are battling
What was I going to do about it? No, the real question was, what could I do about it? The voices of doubt whirled in my mind, a vortex of fear and hesitation accelerating until all I could hear were the screaming echos of my anxiety.
Nothing. I was going to do nothing. I was only me. How could I take on the avatars, LIV, the government. What could I do? My go-to reaction was to retreat. Into my safe space of pretending it wasn’t happening. Numbing myself to the uncomfortable feelings until they could be pressed down into a manageable gurgle in the pit of my stomach.
Go, be with Kaya, take it, take it all, I whispered as I turned and headed out of the front door. My heart beating so loudly, on surround sound, no escape. I could sense my doppelgänger’s eyes on me as I drove off.
If you never try, you never fail. If you never fail, you never live. His words played on repeat in my mind. It wasn’t that simple though. Sometimes it was just too much. Lockdown had heightened our vulnerabilities and some of us had run out of the energy to keep on trying. It was as if the avatars had sensed this, seen how frail we really were and decided on an insurrection. This was their opportunity. Go for it. You’ve got this. The positive mantras that enveloped daily life being their clarion call.
I really thought I would be helping when I came onboard LIV. We all believed that civilisation just needed a little nudge, that the people would wake up from their lockdown slumbers through adventure and quests for bravery. Take courage, be scared we said. Jump start your senses so that you feel life again. Whatever you do, just feel.
What if you couldn’t do that though? What if you needed help to feel things again, to thaw the numbness, to take that first intrepid step? I knew what it was like to shut down when emotions became too much. I had grown up watching it happen all around me and found myself emulating it from an early age. The very antithesis of the women from the sewing group that I had once joined with Kaya. They talked their way out of issues. I had dismissed their collective chatter as inane gossip but suddenly I envied them. I wanted their ability to vocalise their internal worries, to reassure each other, to deal with anxious voices in their heads that might be getting too much airtime.
I now realised that I had got it wrong. Instead of enhancing emotions, the experiences that we were creating at LIV were helping to mask them. We weren’t waking them up. We were leading some to permanent sleep.
I had also got it wrong with Kaya. The doppelgänger was right. I had bailed at the first sign of trouble and had been too scared to work at it. I was doing it even now as I continued to drive away. I stopped the car. I still had a chance to make things right. I could turn back and face things; face Kaya, face the mistakes made at LIV, face the mental health crisis growing in our locked down world. I had to stop pretending that things weren’t happening.
I walked in through my front door and strode over to Kaya, wrapping my arms around her. I’m sorry, I said, gripping her closer. I felt her body bristle as she pushed me away. I could see the confusion rising in her face, of seeing double, both of us standing there, not being able to comprehend and then the colour draining as her body went into shutdown. Her protection mechanism. Her way of coping. I was no stranger to her panic attacks. They were oddly reassuring. They gave me the chance to look after her, instead of always the other way round. I gently carried her to the sofa and stroked her hair. She opened her eyes and saw me. Really saw me. I’m sorry, I said again, I’m sorry I shut you out, gave up on us, on Joshua, without even trying. I got in my own way but I’m going to get myself out. Give me another chance, Kaya, let me make it up to you. I promise I won’t let you down this time.
Slowly the colour came back to her cheeks. A sense of calm enveloped her. She pulled herself up to sitting and shook her head at me. I love you. I really do but…you say this every time. Nothing ever changes. I’m not sure I can keep doing that to myself. We just had this conversation. Remember? She looked up at me and then my at doppelgänger.
He let out a loud, rasping laugh and turned to me, ignoring Kaya, pretending she hadn’t spoken. It’s too late, he said to me. You relinquished your control when you gave up back then. Kaya and Joshua are mine now.
Looking at him, deluded, deranged…even pathetic, I suddenly felt sorry for him. For me. For us, as we were one and the same. An overwhelming, warm feeling entered my heart. It was compassion. A vision of the sewing women appeared in my mind. The embodiment of compassion and kindness. They were sewing the letters ‘LIV’ on their quilt. Yes of course, LIV. It all came back to me then. LIV stood for the Roman numerals for 54. Numerology defines 54 as the number for humanitarianism and compassion. I had come up with that name when they had asked me to be lead programmer. I thought that by imbuing those qualities in a name, it would grow to embrace them. LIV. 54. Of course!
I strode into my study and logged onto my computer. As I clicked my way into corridor 54 of the programmer’s back door of LIV, I felt my pulse quicken. I had bypassed governmental security and gained access to the main core. I typed in my password and my doppelgänger became silent, motionless. I was in control. Finally. Clicking on to the listening mode, I began speaking into the mic of my computer, addressing the avatars directly.
I am told that there is a world of avatars desperate to live a life that matters, I began. I am told that if we couldn’t do it, you would do it for us. Well, I’ve been thinking about your offer and…thank you but no thank you. Life is hard enough without external pressures. We don’t need criticism. We don’t need uninvited feedback. We are hard enough on ourselves. You may not see it from where you stand but inside we are battling, battling with ourselves, battling with expectations, battling full stop. What we need is kindness. We all need to be kinder.
Earlier I had decided that I was going to terminate LIV, destroy the monster that it had become. Devolve responsibility. Wash my hands of it. Then I remembered…remembered what it was originally created for. To help humanity ravaged by the effects of lockdown. To give everyone the chance to emerge from their hibernation and make the world turn again. What we had forgotten was to do it with kindness. Somehow we had left it behind.
So instead of destroying you, I now offer you a second chance. A second life to work together and not against one another. Instead of awaking mankind through experiences, we now need to do it through compassion and empathy. As avatars, you are a part of us. Extensions of us. Be the kindest versions of ourselves and use that kindness. Not just to each other but to ourselves. Shower us with kindness. Offer us a loving word, a listening ear so that we feel secure enough to ask for help, to try things, to make mistakes, to feel understood. Offer us support when we can’t carry on. Give us a safe space to share our darkest thoughts so that one day we will be able to emerge again from the darkness.
Life is just an amalgamation of chances. Sometimes the stars align in our favour, sometimes they don’t. Be our safety net. That is your purpose now. That is how you are going to matter. That is how you are going to live a life that’s a collection of stories and memories put together to mean something. Like a patchwork quilt. As a collective, we need to learn to connect with one another again to truly feel alive. Help us do that.
I paused. I should have felt euphoric after my little speech but all I felt was sadness. The image of our patchwork quilt wouldn’t leave my mind. Mine and Kaya’s. Each patch telling its own unique story. Of how we used to be.
I noticed her standing by the door. I could see that she was feeling the same. I offered her my hand. She hesitated. We may no longer be together, I said, but we will always have our memories. A small smile appeared on her face. She put her hand in mine. A whole quilt full of memories, she replied. I smiled back at her, the heaviness in my heart a little lighter. A whole quilt full of memories, I agreed.
In memory of Cal Stuart. 1997 - 2021. Your story moved me. This story is dedicated to you.
Cal’s family have set up the Calzy Foundation to campaign to establish and promote impactful education and early interventions to support young adult mental health. If you can help spread the message, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK) or 1(800) 273-TALK (US).
📷 : Faris Mohammed